When it comes to retail therapy, I always much rather go to Stratford than Oxford Circus. The huge shopping centre is well designed, modern and has every brand you could think of – without the masses of crowds, making things way less hectic.
Not only that, but you’re surrounded by the Olympic Park and lots of parklands to explore. Most of the stadiums and facilities built for the 2012 Olympics are now open to the public, meaning you can try your hand at the different sports and disciplines yourself.
I love wandering along the ‘riviera’ part of Stratford that joins with Hackney Wick. It’s an especially hip new area where friends like to meet up for good food or craft beer.
What to see and do in Stratford?
1 Hire a Santander bike and explore the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
The cheap and cheerful ‘Boris Bikes’ as they’re known by locals are very easy to use, and their vast amount of docking stations make them a well-loved public facility.
There are plenty scattered around Stratford and the old Olympic Park. Travelling by bike to check out the stadiums and other monuments is a perfect way to take it all in.
With the wide paths and scarcity of cars (bar the occasional maintenance vehicles) on the few roads that do cross through the park, it’s a good area to go for a cycle even if you’re not that confident.
2 Go shopping for the day at the huge Westfield
A perfect shopping destination – especially if the weather isn’t so great (which is sadly not that uncommon in London). This newly-built shopping centre is an enormous yet chic complex that has every brand you can poke a stick at.
Despite its size, it’s not too overwhelming or annoying to get around, unlike London’s other retail precincts.
The centre is well-connected by transport (it even has an international rail station!) and there are plenty of dining options in the food courts – which are not just your household fast food names, but also some pretty decent restaurants too.
3 Take a selfie in front of the Olympic Rings
It won’t take you long after strolling through the park to come across those iconic interlaced rings. They’ve been left there since the 2012 Olympics, and now make for a pretty good photo backdrop.
Did you know that the five rings represent the five continents of the world? Or that the blue, yellow, black, green and red colours, plus the white background of the Olympic flag, are colours that appear on all national flags of the world? Well, now you do.
4 Go down the world’s longest tunnel slide
Though it’s one of the more striking monuments of Stratford, not many people know what this spiraling tower of red steel really is. The 114.5 metre high structure is a sculpture designed by award-winning international artist Anish Kapoor and engineer Cecil Balmond.
But as well as that, the ArcelorMittal Orbit is an observation deck and the home of the world’s longest and tallest tunnel slide. On your way down, you’ll occasionally catch glimpses of the world below through the window strips along the slide tunnel as you twist and turn for what really is quite a long time.
From the top, you can spot the Olympic Rings, a good view of the Gherkin and other parts of the iconic London skyline.
Tip from Therese: Walk down the 455 steps to really appreciate how high up you were, and listen to the sounds of East London played through the specially-designed soundscape as you walk through the stairwell.
5 Pack your swimsuit and visit the London Aquatics Centre
Even if you don’t fancy a swim, it’s worth taking a moment to look at this impressive building designed by starchitect Zaha Hadid for the 2012 Olympics.
Though some of the best swimmers and divers in the country like to train here, it’s also open to the public, and the entry fee won’t actually break the bank.
The Olympic-sized spectator stands have since been replaced with large glass windows, allowing natural light to fill the space while you swim.
Tip from Therese: You can also visit the behind-the-scenes warm-up pool, as well as a dry dive practice trampoline and foam pit area.
6 Check out the Theatre Royal Stratford East
Established in 1884, this venue may have shed some of its old-fashioned grandeur, but only to make way for the exciting, vibrant theatre works that are produced there today.
Two books have been written about the theatre as a testament to its rich history – it was popular since its opening days, even running constant shows during World War I.
The award-winning theatre has had many great artistic directors running the show over the years, ensuring every season has an exciting line-up for eager theatre-goers.
Tip from Therese: Tickets only cost £10 for people aged 26 and under.
7 Peep into the canal boats as you walk along the riviera
The River Lea has a real canalside charm along the Stratford and Hackney Wick stretch. There are good walking and cycling paths along it, making it the perfect spot to walk along on a sunny day. Grab a coffee at one of the waterside eateries and wander along at your own pace.
You’ll probably see some canal boats chugging away as their owners relocate them along London’s mooring network – they’re required to move every other week. Don’t be afraid to look into the ones that are docked along the walking path either.
You’ll notice all kinds of cute quirks – if the wood burner is going, the kind of herbs they’re growing on their rooftops, and how spacious the interiors actually are. It’s a whole other way of London living.
8 Explore Hackney Wick and Fish Island
This hip new area used to be a thriving industrial zone. But gone are the noxious fumes and noisy going-ons from those days; the only remnants of Hackney Wick’s past are the warehouses.
They’ve now been turned into everything from artists’ studios to large co-living spaces, and they are snuggled in comfortably next to modern apartment buildings with dwellings whose balconies must offer exceptional views.
Walking around, it’s not unlikely that you’ll see locals giving the walls a new lick of graffiti or residents taking their Instagram-worthy pooches for a walk.
9 Admire the brutalist detailing at Hackney Wick station
The Tate Modern might be London’s darling of brutalist architecture, but Hackney Wick station is also something to take note of if you’re into that kind of thing. Part of the overground’s North London Line, this station is as much an architectural artefact as it is a train stop.
It’s made up of huge slabs of raw concrete and corten steel that form the angular geometric shapes of the space. Speaking of shapes, Hackney Wick’s past is given a nod in the form of hexagons – the planter boxes out the front of the station and engraved into the walls on the inside.
This a reference to celluloid, the world’s first plastic which was produced in the area. That probably explains why the windows are made of plastic too.
10 Escape the city and stroll through the woodlands
Though a lot of development is still happening around Stratford, there are a lot of natural spaces that have purposefully been left untouched.
To get away from it all, you can observe different wildlife and habitats as they would be if London wasn’t founded all the way back in 50 AD. Preserving nature and educating the public about biodiversity are key features of the Wetlands Walk and the Biodiversity Trail within the Olympic Park.
Or you could visit the Wick Woodland or the Hackney Marshes for something wilder. Whatever trail you choose, you’re bound to see and learn a lot on the way.
11 Take your cycling game up a notch with the intro sessions at the Velo Park
You can give track racing a go at the Olympic-sized velodrome, with beginners more than welcome to learn something new with the ‘Taster’ sessions. Staff are at hand for training tips and supervision the whole time, meaning you’ll be in good hands.
As well as the high-speed indoor track racing, visitors can try pretty much every other bike-related discipline there is – including racing a road circuit, trying mountain bike trails and attempting different tricks and jumps on the BMX track.
12 Catch a movie on a rooftop at Roof East
In the summer months, Roof East hosts a snazzy outdoor cinema with a pretty spectacular view over Stratford and surrounds.
It used to be an empty rooftop carpark, which is hard to imagine when you see the space filled with happy patrons clutching drinks underneath strings of glowing light bulbs and coloured bunting.
Funnily enough, the only cars left on the rooftop are decoratively overgrown with plants.
Tip from Therese: Check online for this season’s film lineup - you can expect anything from hotly requested cult classics to the latest films in cinemas. If you’re on a date, try and snag one of the ‘love seats’.
13 Take a boat tour through the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
Another way to explore the great outdoors of Stratford is via the waterways. You’ll pass through residential canals, the River Lea and along some of Stratford’s less-frequented perimeter areas for some different views of the East London district.
The Lee and Stort boat tours run daily in the warmer months, though it is possible to book a private tour year-round provided you have a large enough group.
There’s a nice little bar on board too, so you can have a drink while taking in a bunch of new facts about the area and its iconic features as you drift by them.
14 Learn how beer is made at the Crate Brewery Tour
This canal-side pizzeria is more than a good spot for a bite to eat and a cheery atmosphere along the water. They make their own beer, and it’s for good reason that most London liquor stores and pubs stock their brews.
To truly appreciate Crate’s offerings, you should book one of their brewery tours. You’ll learn all about how their different craft beers are made, and of course, the tour includes tastings.
The tours are very reasonably priced, though for a little more you can extend your time to gain even more knowledge, and try the beers paired with deli sharing platters.
15 Climb some walls at Hackney Wick Boulder Project
Similar to rock-climbing, bouldering is a climbing sport that even complete beginners will enjoy trying. Instead of ropes and harnesses, the low walls are surrounded by foam mats to ensure your safety, if you should fall.
You don’t need to book any lessons or have special supervision to try bouldering, all you’ve got to do is hire a pair of climbing shoes (or bring your own) and tackle the colour-coded courses after a short induction.
Taster sessions are also available, during which you will be given a more thorough run-down of it all during a one-hour lesson.
Tip from Therese: Try and go during off-peak times (before 4pm on weekdays) for a cheaper rate and to beat the crowds.
16 See a contemporary show at The Yard Theatre
On weekends it’s a buzzing club, but it’s also the venue chosen by various fringe artists to be the setting for theatre productions that are progressive, sometimes challenging, and always thought-provoking.
The space itself is a converted warehouse that seats around 130 people mostly made from recycled materials. It was put together by about 50 volunteers and continues to be a profit-sharing initiative.
A few shows that opened at The Yard went on to be interpreted into television series, and many were invited to perform at larger venues like the National Theatre.
17 Aim for a strike at a retro bowling spot
With 14 lanes to choose from, the All Star Lanes ten-pin bowling venue inside the Westfield shopping centre is one of London’s biggest.
It has distinctly West Coast America vibes combined with a fun 50’s-era flair. In fact, the lanes and pinspotters (the mechanical systems that line up the pins), were all flown in from the US for authenticity and quality purposes.
Pop art decorates the walls and fun tunes will help get you pumped before you throw that bowling ball into the perfect hook shot.
18 See what’s on at Stour Space
This canalside building always has something interesting on. Check online to see what’s in store for the week – you might find an international art festival is being hosted there over the weekend, or maybe you’ll have the chance to attend a yoga class or pay-what-you-feel dinner club.
Even if there’s nothing on in the exhibition space, it’s worth popping in and looking up at the higgledy-piggeldy art studios hidden away in the top floors of the building, or just for a coffee and a croissant along the canalside.
19 Take the kids to Tumbling Bay Adventure Playground
If you’ve got young ones in tow, you mustn’t miss this playground. Even as an adult, you can’t help but feel impressed at all the possibilities of play here.
From towering treehouses to wobbly walkways and swinging bridges, a hidden piano, teepee dens and climbing cargo nets – it’s possible to spend hours here. There are old-fashioned swings and slides, as well as a cool sand and water area complete with diggers and pulleys to play with.
There’s also a nice cafe next to the playground to enjoy a coffee while watching your littlies waving their arms to show you their latest trick.
20 Book a London Stadium Tour
The iconic London Stadium dominates the skyline of Stratford, and it turns out you can tour the insides without having to purchase tickets to the football games, athletics events or concerts that are hosted there.
The stadium was the main stage for the 2012 Olympics, where not only world records were broken, but where the opening and closing ceremonies were held. It’s now home to West Ham United, though it’s worth a visit even if you’re not a football fan.
You’ll learn some fascinating facts about the stadium and visit rarely-seen areas like the indoor running track, the players’ tunnel, managers boxes and the home changing room – don’t worry, you won’t walk in on a half-naked football team while you’re there!
21 Bounce around at ZAPspace
This trampoline park is not to be missed if you loved attempting flips and double-bouncing your friends back in the day.
One hour will get you unlimited access to the three storeys of trampolines, where you can try everything from flipping into a foam pit to challenging your friends to a game of bouncy dodgeball.
Alongside special games and challenges to try, there’s a lot of space for freestyle jumping. You’ll be given special grip socks to wear while jumping, but you should also dress in sporty clothes that won’t fly around too much, and leave your jewellery at home.
They also offer trampoline-centric fitness classes – noting that 10 minutes on the trampoline burns the same amount of calories as a 30-minute jog.
22 Do an art walk and go sculpture hunting in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
A bunch of emerging and well-established artists from all around the world were commissioned to help decorate the park while it was being built for the Olympics.
The artists worked closely with the landscape architects and building planners to make sure everything was exhibited nicely. The permanent works integrate with the landscape more with age, and they vary in size as they do in inspiration.
Some are difficult to find at first, and others are such monumental masterpieces that they’re impossible to miss.
Tip from Therese: Get your hands on the Art in the Park field guide (you can also get it online) as that will give you a tour map of all the sculptures and artworks in the park as well as some backstory into the works and their creators.